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Japan is one of the hiking world’s best-kept secrets. You can go hut-to-hut in the Japan Alps, traverse the “Big Snow Mountain” of Hokkaidō, climb volcanoes in Kyūshū, or saunter the hills around Kyoto. Wherever you go, you probably will not be alone: the Japanese are very keen hikers.
Daisetsuzan National Park (Hokkaidō)
The name means “Big Snow Mountain” and for much of the year, this massif lives up to its name. However, when the snow melts, the hiking is brilliant. Daisetsuzan is Japan’s largest national park, covering more than 2,300sqkm. A vast wilderness area of soaring mountains, active volcanoes, remote onsen, clear lakes and dense forests, Daisetsuzan is the kind of place that stressed-out workers in Tokyo and Osaka dream about on their daily commute. Virtually untouched by human hands, the park has minimal tourism, with most visitors basing themselves in the hot-spring villages on the periphery. From the comfort of your onsen hotel, you can make small forays into the park’s interior, summiting peaks and hiking through valleys on challenging day routes.
A sanctuary in the heart of the Japan Alps, Kamikōchi has some of the country’s most beautiful scenery -- and a variety of hiking trails from which to see it. In the late 19th Century, foreigners “discovered” this mountainous region and coined the term “Japan Alps”. British missionary Reverend Walter Weston toiled from peak to peak and sparked Japanese interest in mountaineering as a sport. He is now honoured with a festival (on the first Sunday in June, the official opening of the hiking season), and Kamikōchi has become a base for strollers, hikers and climbers.
What serious climber would come to Japan and not bag its highest and most peak? If you are here in July or August, an ascent of Mt Fuji, Japan’s highest and most famous peak, is a must. In addition to climbing Fuji-san, visitors can hunt for precious views of the sacred volcano from around the Fuji Go-ko (Fuji Five Lakes). Winter and spring months are your best bets for Fuji-spotting; however, even during these times the snow-capped peak may be visible only in the morning before it retreats behind its cloud curtain. Its elusiveness, of course, is part of the appeal.
Yakushima, one of the most rewarding islands in the Southwest Islands, is home to the ancient Jōmon Sugi tree and some wonderfully mountainous hiking. Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1993, the craggy mountain peaks of the island’s interior are home to the world-famous yaku-sugi, (ancient cedar trees). Hiking among the high peaks and mossy forests is the main activity on Yakushima, but the island is also home to some excellent coastal onsen and a few sandy beaches. Keep in mind that Yakushima is a place of extremes: the mountains wring every last drop of moisture from the passing clouds and the interior of the island is one of the wettest places in Japan. In the winter the peaks may be covered in snow, while the coast remains relatively balmy. Whatever you do, come prepared and do not set off on a hike without a good map and the proper gear.
This semi-active volcano caldera in Kyūshū offers some excellent hiking, with the ever-present threat of eruption adding a certain thrill. It is the world’s largest at 128km in circumference -- so big that it is hard at first to get a sense of its scale. Formed through a series of eruptions over the past 300,000 years, the current outer crater is about 90,000 years old and now accommodates towns, villages and train lines. Aso-san is still active, and the summit is frequently off -limits due to toxic gas emissions or wind conditions. You can check with the Aso Volcano West Crater site for updates in English.